They Left Everything and Followed Him
What does it look like to follow Jesus? What’s involved? What does Jesus ask us to do? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That’s rather challenging, to put it mildly. Bonhoeffer wrote those words during a time when the German Church had sold its soul to the Nazi Party. Bonhoeffer worked tirelessly calling the Church back to Jesus and was hanged for following his Lord. In Chapter 4 of St. Luke’s Gospel we saw various people responding to Jesus. Everyone recognised that he spoke with great authority—with authority that they’d rarely if ever seen in any rabbi or teacher. And they saw him backing up his message with miracles. In the synagogues he was preaching that he had come to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and sight to the blind and then in the streets and homes of the towns he visited he did just that as the sick and the demon-possessed were brought to him for healing. Word got around and everyone “wondered” and was “amazed”. And yet no one was ready to follow Jesus. Just the opposite, in fact; everyone wanted Jesus to follow them! Wherever Jesus went in Galilee, the people wanted him to stay so that he could be their own personal Messiah, their own personal miracle-worker. When Jesus told the people “No” in Nazareth they became so angry that they were about to stone him. So far we haven’t seen anything like Bonhoeffer’s devotion or the devotion of so many others that leads to martyrdom.
But today we come to one of the most famous stories in the gospels. In Chapter 5 we meet the “Big Fisherman”: Simon Peter. And in Peter we see the response that Jesus was looking for. Peter had no ideawhat he was getting himself into at the time. As the gospel story plays out we see that he didn’t always follow Jesus consistently or whole-heartedly. But he followed and he’s become a model for all of us who now follow Jesus. The wonderful thing about Peter is that he’s no plaster saint. As we see him in the gospels and in the book of Acts, we see a man just like us: a sinner, sometimes a doubter, and even once a betrayer. When I read the Bible and I don’t understand I take comfort in Peter; he followed Jesus himself for three years and most of that time he didn’t understand either. Jesus called him to follow, but Peter had no idea what that was going to involve, what Jesus was asking him to do, or even how he was going to do it or even how he was going to support himself financially. But he followed and Jesus did amazing things through him.
The story begins with Jesus preaching again. Remember that he was travelling throughout Galilee, preaching his good news and healing people. Capernaum was his base during those days and he’s in the region of Capernaum as Luke begins the next part of the story. Again, look at Chapter 5, verses 1-3:
On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
Gennesaret was the local name for the Sea of Galilee. That part of the lake had a zig-zag shoreline full of little coves where the fishermen would keep their boats and do their work. In these chapters Luke gives us six “typical” scenes from Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and on this particular occasion Jesus was preaching to a group of people on the beach of one of these coves. Word got out and the crowd got bigger and bigger, so Jesus got an idea. These little coves are like natural amphitheatres. Sound also travels well over water, so Jesus decided to take one of the fishing boats out into the middle of the cove so that he could preach to the crowd and be heard better.
Luke says that the boat Jesus chose belonged to Simon Peter. We don’t know if Peter and Jesus already knew each other. In Chapter 4 we read about Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, but Luke doesn’t tell us things in strict chronological order. If they already knew each other and if Jesus had already healed Peter’s mother-in-law it might explain why Peter, tired from fishing all night, would be willing to row Jesus out into the cove. It might simply be that Peter had just been listening to Jesus preach for the first time and was impressed with what he was hearing. No doubt, though, Peter had heard people talk about what Jesus was preaching and doing throughout the region. At the very least, Peter was probably flattered that this famous preacher was asking for his help.
And so Jesus sits in Peter’s boat and preaches for a while. Peter was probably tired and just wanted to go home. But as the crowd leaves, instead of asking Peter to take him back to shore, he tells Peter that it’s time to get back to work. Look at verse 4:
And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”
If this command had come from anyone else it would have been crazy talk. We hear exasperation in Peter’s response.
And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” (Luke 5:5a)
I’m told by some modern-day fishermen that it’s notoriously difficult to catch fish during the day on the Sea of Galilee. Our sources tells us that in Peter’s day, most of the fishing on there was done at night and the fishermen would then take their catches into the towns to sell them during the morning hours. The nets described here were trammel nets, made of linen. They were useless in the day because the fish could see them and swim away. They were designed to be used at night when they would be invisible to the fish. So Jesus’ command to Peter isn’t just crazy from the standpoint that they hadn’t caught anything all night—why would they expect to catch something by day?—these fishermen didn’t even have the right equipment to fish in the daylight.
One thing I’ve observed about fishermen is that they’re very particular in how they do things and they’re very set in their ways. This pole for this kind of fishing and that pole for that kind; one particular kind of lure and bait for this kind of fish and in this kind of environment and another kind of lure and bait for another kind of fish and environment. And every fisherman knows that his way is best. Some of the men I swim with are retired commercial fishermen. After some years of listening to their conversations I’ve come to realise that they know the Strait of Georgia and the waters around our Island—they really know them. And they’re even more particular about their gear and techniques than the casual fishermen I’ve known. Nobody tells these commercial fishermen how to do their job and if you were to try they’d probably throw you overboard. I can’t think of any reason why Peter would have been any different. Jesus would have known this too. And yet even though Peter’s tired after a night of catching nothing, Jesus tells him and his colleagues to row back out into the deep water at the wrong time of the day and to cast their nets again—nets for night-fishing that the fish will see in the daylight and swim around. But Peter doesn’t throw Jesus overboard. He doesn’t even argue with him. He gets his fellow fishermen together and he says to Jesus:
“But at your word I will let down the nets.”
Yes, Peter let’s Jesus know just how absurd his command is. And Luke makes sure we know that Peter—the expert on fishing the Sea of Galilee—knew this was absurd and impossible. And yet Peter addresses him as “Master”, accepts his authority, and obeys. What Jesus is asking would be absurd coming from anyone else, but the fact that this is Jesus “word”—a word backed by Jesus obvious authority—makes all the difference. This is the first time we’ve seen this kind of response since Mary submitted to the angel’s message back in Chapter 1. Mary knew that virgins don’t conceive and have children and Peter knew that you don’t catch fish in the day when you haven’t caught them at night and you certainly don’t catch them with the wrong kind of nets. And yet as Mary submitted to the announcement that she would, as a virgin, bear a son, Peter now submits to Jesus. He recognized Jesus’ authority just as everyone else did, but for Peter it went beyond amazement and wonder; he was ready to obey and to follow. And so Peter and his friends rowed out and cast their nets.
And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. (Luke 5:6-7)
Was Peter just humouring Jesus because he was “famous” and commanded respect? Did he really expect that something miraculous might happen? It’s hard to say, but it seems like he was expecting something. They might not have caught any fish during the night, but the nets would have been full of weeds and “junk” anyway. He and his colleagues had been cleaning them as Jesus was preaching. Cleaning the nets was a job in itself and it doesn’t seem very likely that Peter would have been willing to foul his nets again if he was just humouring this silly rabbi who obviously knew nothing about fishing. No, I think Peter was expecting something to happen. Things happened wherever Jesus went. And yet even expecting “something” to happen, Peter still wasn’t prepared. Luke says they caught a “large number of fish”. That’s an understatement. They caught more fish than they’d ever caught before—more than their nets were designed to catch. It took the men in two boats to haul in the tearing nets and then the weight of all the fish began to swamp the boats. And all at the wrong time of day and with the wrong kind of nets.
And there in the middle of a mountain of wriggling fish and in a sinking boat, Peter throws himself at Jesus’ feet.
But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. (Luke 5:8-10a)
Peter’s response is the opposite of the response we’ve seen so far. Knowing Peter and how he struggled to understand what Jesus said and did, we can’t read too much into his calling Jesus “Lord” at this point. Peter wasn’t making a theological statement about the divinity or messiahship of Jesus, but in calling Jesus “Lord” he was recognising that Jesus is somehow and on some level God’s agent. The Lord was at work in Jesus and recognising this, Peter responds the way people of true faith have always responded when overwhelmed by the holy. He kneels down, he confesses his sinfulness, and he begs Jesus to go away. If Peter were like the people of Nazareth or Capernaum he would have been offering Jesus a job. “Jesus, don’t go anywhere. We need you to join our little fishing company so that we can catch fish like this every day. Stay with us, Jesus, and we’ll be rich in no time!” No, Peter does exactly the opposite. He recognises that God is at work in Jesus, and faced with that kind of holiness he confesses his sinfulness and begs Jesus to leave.
It’s not that Peter was suggesting he was a particularly evil or impious man. He’s simply responding to an encounter with the holy the way Moses did. Remember God calling to Moses out of the burning bush: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Take off your sandals for you are standing on holy ground.” And how did Moses respond? Exodus says that he hid his face because he was afraid to look on God (Exodus 3:5-6). Or think of Isaiah. He was confronted with a vision of the Lord sitting on his throne, surrounded by angels and he cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). Even prophets like Moses and Isaiah were overwhelmed by their sinfulness when confronted by the holy. And yet Peter’s confession of himself as a sinner highlights Jesus’ mission. Jesus came to do battle with sin and death, but that was only good news to those who knew they were subject to sin and death—to those who knew who the true enemy is. The problem with the people in Nazareth and Capernaum was that they thought the Romans were the enemy. They didn’t understand the gravity of their own captivity to sin. And as a result, they only saw Jesus as a cheap miracle worker. But in Peter we see a man who suddenly understood who the real enemy is and in acknowledging his own sinfulness—his own captivity to that enemy—Peter takes the first step needed to follow Jesus. He acknowledges that he’s exactly the sort of person Jesus has come to redeem. To admit that you are a sinner is to admit your need; it’s to admit that you need God’s gracious intervention—the very intervention Jesus came to make.
Again, Peter probably wasn’t thinking things through this logically or theologically. He simply recognised that he was in the presence of someone who was truly holy and in light of that holiness his own sinfulness was revealed for what it was. Peter suddenly got a taste of what it will be like to stand before God’s judgement. That’s a horrible place for a sinner to be and Peter wanted it to stop. He wanted Jesus to go away. He didn’t want his sinfulness revealed in such a dramatic way. It didn’t occur to him that Jesus might be the answer to his sinfulness. But that changes when Jesus responds to Peter’s fear. Look at what follows in verses 10 and 11:
And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.
The answer to Peter’s sinfulness is not for Jesus to go away, but for Peter to follow Jesus. And, of course, to follow Jesus is to trust him. Again, the theology can come later. At this point it’s enough to trustand to follow. Peter doesn’t know where that will lead, but Jesus gives him a hint. In fact, Jesus suddenly turns the amazing catch of fish into something prophetic and ties it to Peter’s own confession of his sin. He’s spent his life catching dead fish and selling them in the market. Jesus just showed him how lucrative fishing could potentially be with a personal messiah helping him out, but then Jesus calls Peter to follow him and to instead spend the rest of his life catching people who are dead in their sins and releasing them into Jesus’ kingdom. And if Jesus can bring such an amazing catch when it comes to fish, just imagine what can happen if you fish for people instead.
Imagine what the people on the shore were thinking as they watched the fishermen struggling to get the fish into their boats. And imagine what they were thinking as the saw big, tough Peter out there in the boat kneeling in front of Jesus. Maybe they could even hear the conversation across the water. It was a morning full of surprises, but imagine what people thought when Peter and his friends came to shore with Jesus—and with that enormous haul of fish—and simply walked away from it. Peter and his friends, James and John, had made an investment in their boats and nets. Fishing was a good livelihood in those days. They weren’t rich, but they were better off than most. And the miraculous haul of fish was worth a lot of money. But Luke tells us that when they got to shore, “they left everything and followed him”. Everything: the boats, the net, the fish, even their livelihood—their source of income and support. Brothers and sisters, that’s trust. From that point on, Peter, James, and John would find their fundamental sense of belonging and being as they walked with Jesus and as they did the work of his kingdom.
We looked a little bit ago at Isaiah’s response to the holy. Luke presents this entire scene in parallel with Isaiah’s calling. In Isaiah 6 we read of the prophet’s vision of the Lord: “sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up,” the train of his robe filling the temple and the seraphim singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
Isaiah’s response, as we’ve seen, was to cry out “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” The holiness of the Lord brought Isaiah to a recognition of his own sins and the sins of his people, but the Lord didn’t leave him in the horrible place of condemnation. Isaiah goes on to tell us that “one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal…from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, your sin atoned for.’ It was then that Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord asking, “Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?” And now knowing the depth of the sin problem of his people and having been relieved of its weight himself, Isaiah scrambles to respond: “Here am I! Send me” (Isaiah 6:1-10).
This was Peter’s experience. Neither Isaiah nor Peter had any idea what it meant to be sent; they just knew it meant leaving everything and trusting in the Lord. They had had an encounter with the holy and instead of being condemned, they had been forgiven—their sins had been taken away—and they responded to the Lord’s call with faith. Why? Certainly out of a sense of gratitude, but in both cases there was also a realisation that the rest of the nation—even the rest of humanity—needed to experience the same forgiveness that they—Isaiah and Peter—had experienced. They were the poor who had heard the good news; they were the captives suddenly released; they were the blind who suddenly received their sight and more than anything else, they wanted to take that good news, that release, that healing to all the people still subject to sin and death. And they were ready to give up everything else in order to do it
In contrast we have a tendency to be far more blasé about our encounter with Jesus. We need to ask why that is. Why aren’t we as excited as Peter was? Why aren’t we willing to give up everything—or at least to be ready and prepared to give it all up? Why aren’t we bringing in a miraculous catch of people into the kingdom? Could it be because our response to Jesus hasn’t really gone beyond the “amazement” and “wonder” of the people in Nazareth and Capernaum? Could it be because we haven’t really been confronted with our sinfulness as Peter was?
A lot of people are blasé about the Gospel because they’ve never been truly confronted by the weight of sin in light of the truly holy. For too many people, Jesus comes to give us hugs and to affirm us as we are…or at most to encourage us to be just a little bit better than we are. But brothers and sisters, there’s a reason why the liturgy focuses our attention so much on our sin. There’s a reason why we recite the Ten Commandments and then ask the Lord for his mercy and then again confess our sins and hear the Lord’s absolution. There’s a reason why, after both of those “confessions” we still come to the Table acknowledging that we are not worthy of the Lord’s crumbs apart from his gracious mercy. The liturgy declares the love of God manifest in the Lord Jesus, but at each step it also reminds us that we are sinners unworthy of that love apart from grace. It reminds us that we deserve death, but that God loved us so much that he became one of us and died in our place. The liturgy doesn’t let us simply come to be affirmed as we are; it reminds us that Jesus died that we might be forgiven and restored and transformed, because, brothers and sisters, it’s only in light of these things that we can begin to plumb the depths of God’s love for us and the costliness of his grace. And it’s as we understand just how amazing his love and grace are and how much they cost our Lord, that the Gospel becomes not some blasé doctrine of comfort and do-gooderism, but a profound and overwhelmingly compelling call to leave everything and to follow in faith. It’s as we experience our own release from the captivity of sin and death that our blind eyes are opened and we seek to share the good news of Jesus Christ with all those around us that they might be drawn to the kingdom and experience the same wonderful release from captivity that we have.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, thank you for the witness of Peter. As uncomfortable and even as terrifying as such an experience is, confront our sin with the light of your holiness that we might better grasp the depths of your love and grace. Stir up in us a fresh love for you and a fresh desire to share your Good News with the world that it might be set free from the sin and death that once enslaved us. Give us the faith to leave everything and to follow you, trusting you to lead and to equip and to empower. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.